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The new harshness: speech to the NSW Young Labor Annual Conference, Sydney.

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The ‘New Harshness’

Delegates, I’m honoured to talk with you this morning at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.

At a time when 14 years of economic growth presents us with the perfect opportunity to create more wealth and spread more opportunity.

At a time when we should be pursuing a broad and progressive economic agenda, rather than a narrow and extreme industrial relations vendetta that does nothing to sustain our prosperity.

The type of prosperity we enjoy when we have the means for a nice dinner out with friends, or a new shirt - the things we enjoy because we work for them.

And we should never forget that our national economy is strong because our people have worked hard, not because Howard and Costello have.

Perhaps that’s what they meant when they said ‘relaxed and comfortable’; putting their feet up and coasting on the back of record terms of trade.

So at a time like this it’s great to be among so many friends; so many young people committed to a fairer go for communities throughout NSW and beyond.

So many people who reject the Howard-Costello contempt for working people and embrace instead a fairer go for Australians.

What a contrast today: the vibrancy and vigour in this room compared with the ageing complacency and arrogance of the Howard Government.

It’s a distracted, disunited Government, hopelessly split at the highest levels, and rotten through all the under-performing state branches.

Just take the ongoing spat between the PM And the Treasurer, for example.

Now, I keep a pretty close eye on Costello - I have to sit opposite him - and one thing has become abundantly clear to me:

He will smirk and sook and sulk and fume, but he’ll never strike.

Why - because he lacks the two ingredients a successful challenger needs.

First, he lacks ticker, and second, he lacks supporters.

A meeting of his people is like the audience for Australian Idol; it just keeps getting smaller.

Now, many of you who, like me, are fans of the Simpsons, will recognise a bit of Smithers and Burns in Costello and Howard.

There’s Smithers’ boundless subservience and there’s Burns’ patronising arrogance and contempt for his servant.

The tangle they're in also reminds me a bit of two characters in a show that aired before your time; a very funny show called Steptoe and Son.

The main characters of Steptoe and Son were a young garbage man, working and living with his dad, who couldn’t wait to shift the old bloke and his collection of rubbish off into a nursing home.

It’s strikingly like Costello’s inability to push Howard off into the political sunset, taking with him all the lies and distortions, all the junk and stink attached to the PM after a decade in power.

Now delegates, I’ve flown here from the WA state conference in Perth with a message for you about the hopes and ambitions we share for our nation and its people.

Forgive me if I’m a little tired. I’m sure you are too, though your tiredness may have more to do with dinner last night and the local bars that followed.

But on a serious note, the long flight did give me the opportunity to reflect on how we’re prosecuting this fight of our political lives, against the biggest attack on Australian living standards in a century.

The flight also gave me an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite books: Reason to Believe by Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York.

We’ve all got heroes and he’s one of mine; someone who always articulated so stirringly a vision for the progressive side of politics and for the New Yorkers he was proud to represent.

And something he wrote in Reason to Believe struck me as a perfect description of what conservatives impose on people when they get their hands on power.

He called it the ‘new harshness’ - an ideology that ‘celebrates punishment as an instrument of progress’; an ideology that ignores the potential in people and turns anger and pain onto the most vulnerable.

He was talking about US Republicans, but it’s uncanny just how well this illustrates the Howard Government’s approach to IR and tax and welfare.

Cuomo contrasts our belief in a ‘large-hearted spirit of community’ with the Right’s approach which ‘slams the doors of opportunity shut’.

Them - Punishment

So let’s take a look at the Coalition through the prism of harshness and punishment that Cuomo articulates so well.

The Liberal approach isn’t a plan for the future as much as a plan for finding fault with people; making them race to the bottom.

Howard, Costello, Abbott and Andrews are the apostles of this new harshness.

Their approach represents the triumph of extremism over good sense; of ideology over the needs and aspirations of millions of average Australians in the years ahead.

Policies announced by the Government since they got unchecked control of the Senate have all the hallmarks of punishment rather than progress.

They will punish those at the bottom first - the most vulnerable and those without bargaining power - then break like a wave over millions of average Australians.

Make no mistake: theirs is a class war, not just against those on low incomes but a war against the vast middle classes too - a war against our friends, our families, our communities, the majority of our nation.

It’s a class war they’ve waged since 1996, now with a renewed nastiness that comes courtesy of Senate control.

John Howard is a mean and tricky leopard who can’t change his spots.

And one of the most sickening aspects of the debate is that the PM claims he’s the best friend of Australian workers.

Well, his policies on IR and tax are a funny way to show it.

He’s no friend of the battlers, his policies create them. He wants to turn middle income earners into battlers; battlers into an army of working poor.

It’s not enough for Howard that over 1 million Australians in paid work live below the poverty line - he wants more.

The Government thinks the working poor can go without incentive, pay record taxes and choose between worse conditions or the sack.

It’s not good enough in a country that once prided itself on the resilience of the Australian Way: reward for effort and a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

But as we know, this is changing with the Government’s insistence on a dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest society, replicating the US model, its minimum wage of just $5.15 per hour and tax cuts only for the very wealthy.

Workers shouldn’t believe John Howard when he claims his proposals won’t cut real minimum wages - deregulated labour markets go hand in hand with low minimum wages.

John Howard tells us to judge him on his record. His record is record tax, and opposition to every minimum wage rise granted since he was elected in 1996.

His record also includes welfare proposals which cut benefits by up to $42 a week and force sole parents and the disabled to work for as little as $2.40 an hour.

What the Prime Minister wants is a society where the strong dominate the weak; where tax reform is skewed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the great majority of low and middle income earners.

This is a recipe to take us down the low wage road of the United States where minimum wage work offers no protection from poverty.

The Government’s industrial relations and welfare proposals go hand in hand - if you slash a hole in one you have to slash a hole in the other.

And their changes do nothing for either economic growth or distribution.

Did you know the federal Treasury modelled the effect of the IR changes on productivity, employment and wages, but Peter Costello didn’t release it?

Why? Because the Government’s IR changes won’t produce the improvements in employment, productivity or wages that they’re claiming.

And even more importantly, the Government’s ideological agenda ignores the real challenges in the labour market.

Our economic and social progress is being held back by a Government that has failed to unshackle the potential of its citizens - preferring instead to amass an army of working poor.

They simply can’t grasp that good social policies and good economics must go hand in hand if we’re to create wealth and spread opportunity.

Us - Progress

We’re pro-growth progressives with a different, positive approach.

We know that to ensure prosperity for a small country like ours we need to harness as many workers as possible, not marginalise them with low wages and no incentive.

What our country needs isn’t John Howard’s army of working poor, but more incentives and opportunities for Australians to work and prosper together.

Delivering that prosperity and opportunity means creating better export markets and more and better jobs for our people.

It means giving people the incentive to work and rewarding them fairly when they do.

It means signing the market up for social good; reconciling the outcomes of a market economy with the demands of the community.

This is the approach that unites us on the progressive side of politics.

We reject the narrow focus of the Coalition’s harsh and punishing neo-liberal economics.

We reject their view that in defining economic prosperity we must choose between economic growth versus our social and environmental objectives.

We embrace a far wider definition of economic prosperity.

We know economic prosperity isn't about growth for its own sake.

We know economic prosperity is about creating an economy that lets people be all they can be; about investing in early childhood so that everyone has a chance to take advantage of their natural talents; about protecting people from the indignity of deprivation.

The Government’s lost interest in the big economic challenges and the common good.

Their inertia reminds me of what some Americans refer to as an “ambition gap” - a lack of confidence, an inability to think big.

Labor recognises that, as Asia continues to lift its game, we need to match and even exceed it; that the rise of Asia creates unprecedented opportunities as well as risks.

We recognise that it’s not enough to just draw sharp lines of differentiation between us and the Government on IR - though this is important - we must also present a positive and forward looking agenda of our own.

In this spirit we’ve been working on an eight-pillar economic strategy, one that creates a tax system that rewards people’s hard work.

A tax system that’s simpler and progressive; one that recognises people are more likely to participate when they get a fair go.

Our broad economic strategy will also:

• Take away deterrents to R&D and commercialisation; • Adopt new flexible and competitive regulatory models; • Encourage coordination with the states; • Provide welfare that works; • Invest in skills and education; • Provide national leadership on infrastructure; and • Foster private savings.

It’s a big agenda only a united and focussed labour movement can deliver.

When you fly from Perth to Sydney like I just have it’s impossible not to appreciate how big our country is.

It really makes you realise our ambitions should match our size.

Those millions of Australians deserve a Government on their side; one that rewards them fairly and gives them the conditions to prosper.

Forgive me for another Cuomo reference, but he’s spot on when he says that an economy rises and falls on the character and conduct of its people.

We want to win the economic race by investing in people, skilling them up, not by winning a low wage race to the bottom.

Us - Fit to Govern

Now, one of the reasons the Coalition lacks ambition for our country and our people is that they’re preoccupied with their own petty personal ambitions.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that there’s a surplus of destructive ambition in the Party room but a serious ambition gap in Government policy.

This disunity leaves the national interest short changed, and the great challenges in skills, infrastructure and workforce participation ignored.

Labor, on the other hand, is fit to govern - with a whole lot of talent right down the batting order.

Along with my mate Stephen Smith, Kim’s leading the fight of our lives against the extreme IR legislation, up against the hapless Kevin Andrews.

We’ve got Jenny Macklin hounding Brendan Nelson daily, for his

Americanisation of our university system and the Government’s ongoing neglect of skills.

We’ve got Albanese developing a serious sustainability agenda, one that the Government and its invisible minister (his name’s Campbell, if you didn’t know) ignore completely.

We’ve got Julia Gillard inflicting regular damage on Tony Abbott.

We’ve got Kevin Rudd giving our side the credibility on foreign affairs we need so badly if we’re to win government.

We’ve got Chris Evans leading the fight in the Senate, easily handling Hill and Minchin and Patterson.

In perhaps the biggest mismatch of recent memory we’ve got Tony Burke up against Amanda Vanstone; hardly a fair fight.

Just like the lopsided battle between Steve Conroy and error-prone Minister for Communications, Helen Coonan.

We’ve got all the talent - Robert McClelland in Defence, Penny Wong in Employment, Tanya Plibersek in child care and women, Joel Fitzgibbon - the list goes on and on and on.

I’d back our team in a political scrap against theirs, any day.

And with all the crazy, extreme, right-wing policies being cooked up by the Howard Government, Australians deserve a focussed, ambitious, united Labor Party now more than ever.

I’d argue that if federal Labor has failed in recent years it’s because we’ve failed to show middle income earners just how much our beliefs and interests coincide; just how much Labor is on their side.

It’s a big challenge for us to make the case, because the stakes have never been higher and our efforts have never been needed more.

Because delegates if we want fairness in the workplace; in New South Wales; throughout Australia, we need to put Beazley in the Lodge.

He’ll stand on the steps of Parliament House and rip the IR legislation up, and we’ll put some incentive in the tax system too.

Because the Government’s not up to it - it’s out of touch, out of ideas, out of puff; and it’s our job to throw it out of office.

Did you know, on current boundaries, only 28,609 people need to change their vote in the key seats for us to win in two years time?

A Labor Party united behind this objective - united against the Howard brand of harshness I’ve talked about today - will be unstoppable come 2007.

We’re counting on you just like Australia’s counting on us.

So let’s get on with it.




JIM CHALMERS Media Adviser 0417 141 676 Office of WAYNE SWAN MP Federal Labor Shadow Treasurer